New hope for Cape Breton’s rusting rails
Complete grade rail from Truro to Sydney pegged at $130 million
Cape Breton Post / 13 July 2020 / Ted Bartlett, President, Transport Action Atlantic.
CONTRIBUTED There have been no train whistles heard at the Orangedale station in nearly five years.
It’s now been nearly five years since the final whistle sounded at Orangedale, as the Genesee and Wyoming shortline railway company ran its last freight train over the Sydney Subdivision. The rails have continued to rust, ties are deteriorating, and the roadbed is being compromised by unrepaired washouts – despite monthly maintenance payments by Nova Scotia’s taxpayers.
But wait! There’s a glimmer of optimism on the horizon – perhaps even a bright shining light. While we’ve all been preoccupied by the pandemic, a number of new considerations have arisen – one of them actually a silvery lining amid the dark cloud of COVID-19.
The Government of Canada is now keen to give the economy a jump-start with “shovel ready” green-focused infrastructure investments. Rebuilding the Cape Breton rail line would surely meet the criteria – and furthermore present an opportunity for Ottawa to make good on a quarter-century-old commitment signed by the president of then Crown-owned CN. The letter to the premier of Nova Scotia when the Cape Breton line was spun off to the first American shortline operator was an unfulfilled guarantee that rail service to Sydney would remain operational should the arrangement not work out.
For its part, the provincial government now appears satisfied that there is sufficient potential for an international container port on Sydney harbour – a development that everyone agrees can never happen without a fully-functional rail line. There’s good reason for optimism in the recent announcement from Business Minister Geoff MacLellan of a new deal with G&W to keep the railway intact (but not serviceable) at less cost to the taxpayers, and by his expressed belief that the SHIP/Novaporte proposal has legs. Also encouraging is the First Nations participation in the project.
There’s now a clear indication that international shipping patterns are changing, and that substantial growth lies ahead in trans-Atlantic container traffic. Atlantic Canada is ideally positioned to take advantage of this opportunity, and Cape Breton can be a major beneficiary. Ports on the United States eastern seaboard are already heavily congested, with very limited space to expand. Halifax can certainly handle some of the future growth, but, again, both ocean terminals there are surrounded by dense urban development.
Sydney harbour, on the other hand, has abundant undeveloped land available for logistics and distribution facilities. In reality, the Novaporte proposal does not represent competition for Halifax, or even Saint John. It is actually a hugely attractive alternative to the American ports – and one that has apparently grabbed the attention of major international shipping lines.
It may be some years yet before we see super-sized container vessels appearing in Sydney harbour, but there’s a growing level of confidence that it will indeed happen in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, a rehabilitated rail line could be put to use as soon as it is completed, and begin some immediate payback on the taxpayers’ investment. Diverting domestic traffic for Cape Breton and Newfoundland from an overburdened highway system to environmentally-friendly rail transportation would mean significantly reduced road maintenance costs for the Province of Nova Scotia, not to mention the safety benefits.
The cost of rehabilitating the complete rail infrastructure from Truro to Sydney to what’s known as class 3 track is pegged at $130 million. This includes upgrading the portion that’s still operational. That investment would permit double-stack container trains to operate at 40 miles (65 kilometres) per hour over the entire line. That kind of money would likely buy less than 20 kilometres of twinned highway (assuming there weren’t too many bridges or interchanges) – which would also come with the substantially higher public expense for maintaining it.
Minister MacLellan seems convinced that SHIP has a business plan that international financiers are willing to invest in. Now is the time for Cape Breton’s Liberal MPs to get firmly behind the rail rehabilitation project. They would seem to have a potential ally in Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna – well known for her strong environmental views. This modest, green-focused, low-risk investment has huge economic implications for a region that has suffered far too long. Let’s get on with it – now!
Ted Bartlett is president of the advocacy group Transport Action Atlantic. He lives in Moncton.
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